Muller: If we lost fairly I'd take it . . . to lose like this really hurts
Ulster 15 Saracens 17
Johann Muller's facial expressions mapped the course of a night they'll never forget in Ravenhill.
The steel that met Billy Vunipola's challenge twice in the ferocious opening exchanges was replaced by a mixture of pleading, shock and dread when Jerome Garces showed Jared Payne a fifth-minute red card after his clumsy challenge on Alex Goode.
After that, there was a grim determination from the soon-to-retire Springbok before he fought back tears as he was called from battle with 11 minutes left.
In between, there were the moments reserved only for his team-mates as the captain exhorted every last drop of energy from them in what was ultimately a heroic defeat as Ulster exited the Heineken Cup in the quarter-finals for the third time in four years.
An hour after full-time, he had assumed a sorrowful expression as he contemplated a disastrous evening that brought out the character of his team in spades. Everything that could have gone wrong did: Payne's exit was followed by Rory Best's departure with an ankle injury, while Ruan Pienaar played with one arm and Nick Williams was struggling. Neither made the hour mark.
That the home side finished the game on the front foot, two points down and searching for the winner during an incredible multi-phase period of pressure that had everyone in Ravenhill on their feet was astounding.
Somehow, though, Saracens' discipline held and Brad Barritt forced a penalty. The superhuman effort had fallen just short; Clermont were heading to London and not Dublin.
"I'm massively proud," Muller reflected. "I came in at half-time and I said to the boys, 'if we pull this off it will be the greatest rugby achievement of my career' and I've won a World Cup and a few trophies, I've achieved a bit.
"Still, the character that was shown in that squad, in every single guy... not one of those 23 guys ever doubted. We could have won it in the 78th minute there, it's one guy offside, one guy not rolling away – whatever the case may be.
"I'm massively, massively proud, but at the end of the day it's going to haunt us for the rest of our lives, because that is one that got away.
"I don't think there's a lot of teams who could play for 75 minutes (with 14 men) and still be in with a chance with two minutes to go. The easy thing would have been to lie down and say 'it's impossible'.
"It showed the hunger and character in the squad, how bad we wanted it. To fall short by two points makes it worse, to fight so hard hurts so much more."
Both coaches agreed that the decision to send Payne off was harsh as the full-back's challenge was, in the words of Saracens coach Mark McCall, "reckless, but not malicious".
The serious nature of Goode's injury – subsequently confirmed as concussion – allowed Muller the chance to ask the referee to review the incident on the big screen and Ravenhill watched anxiously, expecting a yellow card that would give Saracens impetus.
The red card produced shock and ire on the terraces as the fans did their best to fill in as the extra man.
"My view, from watching on the big screen, was that Jared never took his eyes off that ball," Muller recalled.
"Yes, the safety of the player is the most important thing and we wish him all the best in his recovery, but my feeling was that Jared didn't see him coming until he made contact and I thought the red card was really, really harsh.
"He (Garces) said the guy came down on his head and that's automatically a red card. I don't want to criticise him, he made the call and we have to live with that. I do believe that the state of the injury did have an impact on his decision. If he (Goode) had stood up, it might have been different."
Ulster's task was re-categorised from Mourne to Himalayan, but somehow they led 9-5 at the break as the clearly struggling Pienaar nailed three penalties to counter Chris Ashton's try, which he finished with his trademark dive that almost sparked a riot.
Sarries upped it after the break and Schalk Brits finally ended his international colleague's involvement with a hard carry through a flailing Pienaar tackle that ultimately led to Mouritz Botha's try, but Owen Farrell's profligacy kept the hosts in it.
The England fly-half failed to convert either try and missed two penalties to boot, but Paddy Jackson struck the post with his first opportunity to restore his side's lead and Farrell belatedly found his range to cross-kick for Ashton's second try and convert from the touchline with just over 10 minutes remaining.
Ulster looking out on their feet but they stormed back and Jackson kicked two penalties to give them a real shot at history. However, wave after wave of carries through 40 phases couldn't get the hosts into drop-goal range, and Saracens refused to give away the penalty.
The final whistle brought boos from the crowd and jubilation from the relieved English side. For the Ulster players, the sound will ring in their ears for some time to come.
"Look, it's my last Heineken Cup match, so obviously it is going to be emotional – that's not the way that I dreamt about it," Muller concluded.
"Had we lost fair and square, I'd have taken it. But to lose the way we did hurts. It really hurts."
ULSTER – J Payne 0; A Trimble (C Gilroy 62) 8, D Cave 8, L Marshall 5, T Bowe 8; P Jackson 6, R Pienaar 6 (P Marshall 6 49); T Court 7, R Best (R Herring 13) 5, J Afoa 7; J Muller (capt) 8 (R Diack 6 69), D Tuohy 6 (I Henderson 6 60); R Wilson 7, C Henry 7, N Williams 7 (S Ferris 6 55).
SARACENS – A Goode (C Wyles 5); C Ashton, D Taylor (C Hodgson 11), B Barritt, D Strettle; O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock 69); M Vunipola (R Barrington 74), S Brits, J Johnston (M Stevens 47); S Borthwick (capt), M Botha; B Vunipola, J Burger, E Joubert (K Brown 65).
Ref – J Garces (France)